When Tony Blair was appointed Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter in the New Year’s Honours list, some commentators wondered why the Queen had waited so long to bestow this knighthood on the former prime minister. After all, both Margaret Thatcher and John Major were given the same honour, respectively, five and eight years after leaving office. By contrast, Blair had to wait nearly a decade and a half.
Had Blair been given the award earlier it might also have proven less controversial. The Iraq War has come to cast a shadow over almost everything he did during his ten years in Downing Street – and the impact of the conflict seems to have been magnified as the years have elapsed. Two years prior to stepping down as prime minister in 2007, Blair won Labour a majority of 66 seats. Yet according to YouGov, his net favourability rating today stands at a lowly minus 60.
From standing on the steps of Downing Street in 1997, lip quivering, proclaiming on the back of securing a thumping majority in the Commons that “a new dawn has risen, has it not”, Blair is now, more than two decades later, one of the most unpopular public figures in the country – and easily the most unpopular living former prime minister.
All political careers end in failure but Blair, it seems, is a victim of the ongoing political backlash against the era in which he governed. The creeds in which he believed – globalisation, foreign intervention, the marketisation of public services – are today deeply unfashionable, even if the public once voted in their droves for their leading apostle. In keeping with the prevailing hostility to all things Blair, a petition to have his knighthood rescinded has amassed the signatures of more than 700,000 people in less than a week.
This sort of thing is now par for the course. Whenever Blair makes a public statement, even in matters unrelated to foreign policy (such as on Britain’s vaccine roll-out, where he was one of the early proponents of vaccinating as many people as possible with a first dose rather than preserving stocks for second doses) he is scathingly dismissed, usually as a “warmonger”.
Iraq is the biggest albatross around Blair’s neck, and for obvious reasons. It has become a truism to say that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave mistake. As the Chilcot report into Britain’s involvement in the war found, the UK “chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”. Moreover, the inquiry found that judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction were presented with a certainty that was “not justified”.
[see also: How unpopular is Tony Blair?]
When the US failed to secure a second United Nations resolution to authorise war, Blair ought to have taken a leaf out of his Labour predecessor Harold Wilson’s book. In the 1960s, the Democrat president Lyndon Johnson sought the support of Wilson to escalate the Vietnam War. Though Wilson wouldn’t publicly criticise the Americans (“Because we can’t kick our creditors in the balls,” he said), he refused to commit British troops to the conflict.
It is true that the US invasion of Iraq would likely have happened regardless of whether Blair had pledged to “be with you, whatever” to the US president George W Bush in the now infamous memo. The Bush administration was intent on toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime with or without the support of America’s allies. Blair may have provided an ethical fig leaf for the invasion – and for that history will surely condemn him – but he had little power to stop the tanks rolling into Baghdad. The idea that Blair himself is “personally responsible” for the Iraq war dead – a claim made by the petition to have the former prime minister’s knighthood rescinded – is nothing short of hysterical.
Yet the anti-Blair petition seems to be about more than solely Iraq: it also laments that he embroiled Britain in “various conflicts”.
Blair took Britain to war on five occasions: in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq in 1998, Afghanistan, and then Iraq again in 2003. Britain was one of more than 40 countries that took part in the 2001 effort to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war that was backed by a UN Resolution and arguably started when al-Qaeda (whom the Taliban had been harbouring) murdered nearly 3,000 people in New York on 11 September. Elsewhere, military interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo were broadly successful – at least in terms of preventing widespread ethnic cleansing.
In other words, Blair’s foreign policy record is decidedly mixed. Its liberal interventionist doctrines were also forged in the bloody aftermath of the amoral isolationism that characterised international policy under John Major. For example, during the genocidal campaign by Serbian nationalists to ethnically cleanse the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, the Major government sabotaged all attempts to lift an arms embargo on the region. Ostensibly imposed to prevent escalation of the conflict, the embargo entrenched the military advantage of the Serbs who controlled one of the largest armies in Europe. Following the resulting massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica, the ministry of defence worked “to deny and play down evidence of the massacre”, according to the former BBC journalist John Sweeney.
And yet today it is John Major (knighted with little fanfare in 2005) who is treated as a wise elder statesman, whereas Tony Blair is considered persona non grata.
To be sure, there is much to dislike about the politics of Tony Blair. His premiership has come to characterise an era in which the worship of wealth and the market enchanted even Britain’s leading centre left party. As the conservative journalist Charles Moore once put it, Thatcher believed in privatisation; Tony Blair just likes rich people.
Yet it takes quite a jump to go from this to accepting the words of Angus Scott, who launched the petition to have Blair’s knighthood rescinded and told Metro that “everything [Blair] did, bar a few exceptions, has turned out to be fundamentally flawed and disastrous for this country”.
One could object on a number of grounds: the minimum wage, peace in Northern Ireland, the abolition of Section 28, hundreds of new schools and hospitals, an unprecedented fall in the number of children and pensioners living in poverty, as well as a huge reduction in the number of people sleeping rough – these don’t seem to add up to a disastrous legacy.
Perhaps we’ve so easily forgotten Blair’s achievements in government because his successors have been so successful at undoing many of them (witness the return of “cardboard cities” in London as homelessness soars under the Tories).
But if Margaret Thatcher and John Major are considered worthy recipients of a knighthood (Thatcher also took Britain to war, whereas Major merely acquiesced in a preventable slaughter in the former Yugoslavia) then I fail to see why Tony Blair should be omitted. The late essayist and historian Tony Judt once contemptuously called him “the gnome in England’s Garden of Forgetting”. It seems Blair himself has now fallen victim to this country’s penchant for historical amnesia.